When does a goat roll on four wheels and an old Ford chassis? When it’s a Colombian chiva!

Since publishing our April news post, we’ve gotten lots of comments and questions about the vehicle in the highlight photo:

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This colorful contraption is known as a chiva (Spanish for female goat), so named because of its ability to take on even the most treacherous Colombian mountain roads. In the rural towns, chivas are just about as common as arepas (the corn tortilla-like disks that are served with every meal). Chivas provide rustic but important and low-cost transportation for the people, their livestock, and just about any other goods you can imagine. They’re Colombia’s answer to “chicken buses.”

We spotted the above chiva in San Carlos, a small town about two hours’ drive west of Medellín. (Just before the pandemic hit last year, we made a very cool road trip to San Rafael and San Carlos – our last before the nationwide lockdown). As we watched, the guys kept putting more and more stuff on top: bags of produce, big stems of plantains, propane tanks, furniture, luggage, and bags and bags of who knows what else.

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A chiva ride is an open-air affair. Most chivas include bench seating for the passengers and plenty of cargo space.
The typical chiva is brightly painted, dominated by the colors of the Colombian flag (red, blue, and yellow) and plenty of religious imagery or some type of reference to the local scenery. In some towns, they’re called escaleras (ladders) because of the ladders used to stow items on the top of the vehicle. Chivas are such icons that party versions have shown up in locales as far-flung as New York, where passengers are treated to live bands, bar service, and stops at Colombian restaurants and night clubs. But that version of a chiva is just about as foreign to rural Colombians as the two gringos walking around, gawking and taking photos!

Here are a few of our favorite chiva spottings (photos in a gallery – just click through to see each one).

Jeepaos and Tuk Tuks

For rugged, rural transportation, 4×4 Jeepaos are almost as revered as chivas. Typically a Willys Jeep or Toyota Land Cruiser, the jeepao is a vital link between the rural towns and the country folk who live in the remote fincas. (The Willys has an interesting history – did you know it was one of the original army jeeps?)

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Jeepaos in the heritage town of Jericó, loading up for a muddy trip into the mountains. While the Willys jeep is more traditional, today’s jeepaos are more likely to be Toyota Land Cruisers.
Tuk-tuks are another common means of transportation that you’ll spot in just about every town in Colombia (and South America, for that matter). These three-wheelers are amazingly versatile, fun, and inexpensive to ride.
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Colorful tuk-tuks ready for action in Guatapé.
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This tuk-tuk is done up to resemble its larger cousin, the chiva. Our cocker boy, Tango, approves.
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Just like chivas, tuk-tuks reflect the icons and scenery of their local communities. In Jericó, a lot of tuk-tuks bear the image of Santa Laura, Colombia’s first female saint, who was born and raised there.
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The design of tuk-tuks varies from town to town, province to province, and country to country. Here are some interesting tuk-tuks we saw in Puno, Peru.

Chivas and Jeepaos in Folk Art

The Colombians revere their chivas and jeepaos, and you’ll see images of them just about everywhere.

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Street art gracing a corner in San Carlos
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A Willys jeepao cutely rendered in ceramics
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The Willys usually makes an appearance at Colombia’s Christmas light displays. Here’s one from last December in Medellín.
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Here’s another Christmas lighting display honoring the chiva.

Have you taken some interesting local transportation in your travels? Tell us about it!

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33 Comments

  1. Mary McGarvey Reply

    What a nice blog! Happy Memorial Day and you have started my day very nicely, too! Thanks! Mary

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi, Mary! Hope you and John had a nice Memorial Day – looks like we have ourselves another long “festiva” weekend. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    • Great photos for illustrating the many interesting ways Colombians get around without having a personal car.

      • John and Susan Pazera Reply

        Thanks Henry – hope you’re well 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks – glad you enjoyed it!

  2. We had a few of these colourful rides in Colombia. Probably the most unique was standing on the back of one of those Jeeps getting to Valle de Cocora. The ride was bumpy and we held on for dear life, but since we made it in one piece it was a lot of fun 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We’re looking forward to having adventures like that in the Valle de Cocora – one of the places on our list to visit. Hope you two are well!

  3. Excellent fun article about our Colombian modes of transportation. One I think you missed, although not painted and colorful, is a transport like Jeep but bigger and holds inside, on the sides and sometimes on top if you dare, about 20 people. When people get on most do the sign of the cross. We took it twice and although not catholic we decided that the sign of the cross might not be a bad idea.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Sharon. We are not familiar with the conveyance you’re describing, but it doesn’t surprise me. Colombians certainly have inventive ways of getting around! Did you guys ever ride a “diablo rojo” in Panama? In our experience, the more saints and statues on the dashboard, the crazier the ride. And we had some crazy ones!

  4. mike and karen Reply

    You guys are amazing. Your travels are my envy. Love your narratives, photos, and especially YOU. Hope to see you in the not to distant future . Your sailing buddies Mike and Karen

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Mike and Karen – so great to hear from you! We will never forget our sailing days and the fantastic friends we made, especially you two. Ever fancy a trip to Colombia? We’d love to see you!

  5. Really enjoyed learning about this interesting mode of transportation! The pictures are gorgeous. I love all the colors! 🇨🇴

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Cindy! With chivas, the more colorful the better. Hope you’re well!

  6. new life goal…ride one of these beautiful, colorful, artist buses! I have never once in my life thought that a bus could be so beautiful and so inviting. Colombia clearly knows how to do transportation right. 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Mass transit in all its forms is one of the things we love about Colombia. It really is possible to get just about anywhere you want to go without a car, if you have the time and patience 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We hope you can experience Colombia someday! Be well 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Donna! We hear you about needing some virtual travel. Here’s hoping we’ll all be writing about things a little further from home, this time next year!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Pretty much every adventure in Colombia is colorful 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Sorry you’re still having typing issues – hope you continue to be on the mend. But thanks for reading 🙂

  7. Oh this is such a fun post. It reminded me of Guatemala’s chicken busses, and of India’s tuks tuks, but South American tuk tuks are so much more decorated!
    Alison

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Alison – isn’t it interesting that those three-wheeled contraptions are called tuk-tuks everywhere you go? Near as I can tell, the name originated in Thailand. Interesting that they call them the same thing in Inda, and here – halfway around the world. Take care!

  8. I love how colorful the chivas are! Also, I didn’t realize tuk-tuks were in Colombia too. I’ve ridden them all over Southeast Asia. So interesting to see the various modes of transportation around the world!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Becky! As I said to Alison above, it’s so interesting that tuk-tuks go by the same name pretty much anywhere you are in the world. I want to research that origin a little further. Hope you’re well!

  9. Although different, those richly-decorated chivas remind me of the jeepneys I saw in Manila. They both always seem to be painted with the brightest color possible, which makes them stand out among other vehicles on the road. I wasn’t expecting to see tuk-tuks in Colombia, but they surely are no less interesting than chivas. The tuk-tuks we have in Jakarta (we call them bajaj here in Indonesia, after the Indian vehicle manufacturer that produced them all) are usually painted only in one color (orange for the older ones, and blue for the newer ones).

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      That is so interesting, Bama – Bajaj is a brand of motorcycle here and they’re really common. I assumed it was a Chinese or Korean brand, but maybe they come from India or Indonesia! Hope you’re well!

  10. Brilliant photos, love those chivas. They are so colourful and look amazing. Tuk tuks look great too and they all look in really good condition. Can’t believe they pack so much stuff on top of them.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Jonno! And you should see where these things go. We took a trip up into the mountains in our 4WD car the other day, on a very narrow, steep, unpaved road. And along came a chiva. It’s no wonder they’re named after goats! Hope you two are well 🙂

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